The Night of the Iguana text and movie version are two different works of art that happen share the same story. Some of the aspects of both works are the same, but most are different, or at best, similar.
The story (text) begins with Shannon leading a tour group of Bible college women through Mexico. The group stays at the Costa Verde Hotel where Maxine, recently widowed and enjoying the company of two young men, is the manager. A minor named Charlotte then begins to pursue Shannon, much to the chagrin of Miss Fellowes, Charlotte’s guardian. Because of this, Miss Fellowes does not blame Charlotte for Charlotte’s antics, Miss Fellowes blames Shannon. She blames him so much that she wants to get him fired from his job as a tour guide. Miss Fellowes goes as far as to look up his background and file charges against him.
Shannon does not want anything to do with Charlotte or Miss Fellowes. This act of Shannon’s translates into the movie version. For example, when Charlotte shows up in Shannon’s room the first night, being polite, Shannon lets her in, but when he realizes what she’s up to, tries to kick her out. Charlotte is such a strong character that she does what she wants.
The last half of the text shows Hannah, a woman seeking shelter with her 98-year-old grandfather, trying to get Shannon back on the straight and narrow after Shannon seems to have lost his battle with Charlotte, Miss Fellowes, alcohol, and God. After Hannah’s talk with Shannon, he seems to try to make the best of a bad situation.
The story, of both the text and the movie, is set in the summer of 1940 in Mexico. To add to the setting, the movie version is in black and white. The text is able to convey more of a sincere and dramatic emotion while the movie version cannot. However, the movie version can portray the story more explicitly. It is impossible to reach that kind of dramatic emotion on the screen.
The movie begins with the backstory of Larry Shannon, a Reverend-turned-tour guide, pushing his congregation out of the church after experiencing a breakdown. This scene, in the
original text, was narrated, not acted out as the viewer sees in the movie version.
From here, the text and the movie do not seem to sync up. In the text, the character of
Charlotte does not make an appearance until the second act. The text begins with interaction between Maxine and Shannon. However, the movie introduces Charlotte immediately; Charlotte flirts with Shannon right after the scene in the church.
Also, in the movie, a scene where Charlotte steals Maxine’s lovers, Pedro and Pepe, and get kicked out of a cantina for dancing provocatively with them, leads to a fight. In the movie, this scene takes place in several different places, but in the text, it all takes place on the hotel verandah. This scene works to the movie’s favor because it is lively and funny. Williams’ plays had a reputation for darkness, and even though most of the text is loaded with dark humor, the fight scene is refreshingly lighthearted.
The story is about how lives filled with bleak outlooks find a will to keep moving and try to make the best of a bad situation. The text shows this more than the movie does. The movie seems to simply be for entertainment value when the text seems to have a deeper meaning behind the story.
In conclusion, the movie has humor and action that the original text did not have. The movie focused less on dialogue, which tended at times to be dense and somewhat dull, and focused more on moving the story along, which made the story more entertaining. Without
losing the integrity of the original play, the movie adds a little, and much needed, pizzaz.
Perhaps what made this play a success was that Williams rooted for the underdog. As a part of human nature, most individuals tend to want to see the guy down on his luck win. This aspect gave this play its sense of realism and truth.
What is working against the movie is the play’s tendency toward the dramatic. Because the movie cannot possibly translate all of the emotion of the characters, the story would be at its best on the stage or on paper. Getting a feel for the dramatic and the emotional is what this play is about. The explosive nature of emotion is what sends this play to the forefront of the viewer’s imagination.
However, the stark black-and-white contrast helped add dramatic effect to the
movie, something that the theatrical version needed. Because the screen lacks depth, that depth needed to be shown instead of told. The text pulled off the dramatic effect of emotion nicely
because the text was meant to be performed live, but only looking at pictures on a screen, the
movie could not do the same. The colors of the movie, or rather lack there of, make this version stand out; makes it interesting for the casual viewer.
Another issue is censorship. The movie was censored to exclude the explicit conversation with Maxine in regards to sex with Pedro and Pepe. This hurt the movie. The more naive viewer might think that Maxine was nothing more than a tramp when in reality she had relationships with these two young men. The movie helped the original text in many ways, but this was not one of them.
As Williams’ last commercial and critical success, The Night of the Iguana is easily one of his best plays.